Turning the Negativity Train Around

Image by Ianqui Doodle

“Negativity is the enemy of creativity.”  —David Lynch

Everyone experiences negativity sometimes.  We have niggling self-doubt, depressed thoughts, frustrations or anger about all kinds of things in our lives.

The problem occurs when that little engine of negativity starts racing downhill like a train without brakes.  It’s gonna take out anything good in its tracks and be pretty dang hard to turn around once it gets going.

Including our creativity.

Unfortunately, writers (and other creatives) can develop the really bad habit of thinking negatively about themselves and their craft.  We say (or think) things like:

  • I’ll never write as well as Stephen King, so why bother?
  • My family will never support me in my writing/I’m taking time away from my family.
  • I can’t plot.
  • I’m too embarrassed to ever let anyone see my work.
  • My writing is always rejected.
  • I’ll never have enough time.
  • No agent will sign me.
  • The publishing industry sucks.

The problem with all this negativity is that, once you get going, it’s sooo hard to pull yourself out of it.  (Newton knew what he was talking about when he talked about the first law of motion, yo.)

The momentum of negativity zaps creativity and motivation right outta here.  If you go into a writing session, for instance, thinking that this manuscript is just going to be rejected like all your others, how much effort are you really going to put into it?

All this negativity usually falls into a few different categories:  negativity about your writing, negativity about the writing industry, and negativity about living up to expectations.  Depending where your negative train is headed makes all the difference in how you turn it around.

Negativity about your writing

When you feel that your writing stinks and will never get any better, just remember this:  every writer, no matter how famous now, started in the exact same place you are.  New York Times Bestsellers weren’t born with their names on the list. They had to go through the same process you do of dreaming up an idea, drafting it out, editing it, editing it some more, submitting it, getting rejected, submitting it some more.

It’s highly unlikely that their first book was published.  More probably, they have just as many awful manuscripts under their beds as you will have by the time you’re “make it.”

Something that may surprise you, too, is that even famous authors have negative thoughts. Maybe even more so. They have bad days or days when the writing doesn’t flow or when they just can’t get the right words on the page. They worry about whether the current manuscript will live up to the last one or whether fans will be disappointed.

The difference is, they don’t allow that negativity to keep them from making a living.

Negativity about the writing industry

There’s always something to complain about regarding the writing industry, and always someone happy to complain, just in case you don’t have enough negativity of your own.

The deal is this:  the writing industry is hard.  But so is becoming a doctor or a lawyer.  So is making it to upper management of a big corporation. So is owning your own business. So is being a parent. Sometimes so is just getting out of bed every day!

Anything worth doing is hard.

Instead of complaining about how hard something is, though, successful people study it, figure out how to work through the hard parts, and persevere through the tough times.  They become informed about what to expect, so they don’t focus only on the potential good parts and then get floored by the not-so-good parts.

Negativity about living up to expectations

Expectations, real or imagined, can produce a lot of negativity. Whether they are your outlandish expectations for yourself (I’ll sell my first book for six figures and a movie deal) or the expectations you believe others have for you (my wife expects me to become the next J. K. Rowling while never missing a minute of family time).

Goals are great, but setting your own expectations too high can make you feel defeated.  Rather than allowing yourself to grow as a writer, your expectations can set you up for failure when you experience the snail’s pace of the industry or repeated rejections as you’re starting out.

Feeling pressured by other’s expectations can bring guilt and fear into what should be a fun, creative part of your life. Sometimes that guilt involves making writing a priority when others feel they should be your priority.  And sometimes it’s about the fear of being judged by family and friends for what you write or what you think they expect of you as a writer.

Reversing that runaway train

There are lots of ways to turn around negativity.  Give some of these a try and see if you can put yourself in a more positive frame of mind, which is sure to help your creativity!

  • Keep a notebook (or a Pinterest board) of positive writing quotes, or quotes that just make you feel better about writing. Read them often, particularly when feeling down.
  • Read articles by or interviews with writers who have “made it.” They are often full of stories that will make you feel some camaraderie with others who have been right where you are and presevered.
  • When you feel yourself becoming consumed by a particular negative thought, ask yourself, “Can I be 100% certain this is true.?” I’m pretty sure that most famous writers didn’t start out thinking they would be famous writers.  You can’t be 100% certain that you’ll never write as well as Stephen King or J.R.R Tolkien.  Are you 100% certain you “don’t have time to write” (or are you really just choosing to spend your time on other things)?
  • Surround yourself with positive writers. If you find that your writing friends just fuel your negativity, it’s time to find different friends. A positive support group can make all the difference.
  • Set realistic expectations of yourself. Talk to other, more experienced writers, and ask them about their paths.  Knowing what to expect can help you feel more grounded in reality and less likely to put pressure on yourself. Share this information with family and friends who may have outlandish expectations. Talk about the truth of this career and ask them for the support you need from them.
  • One of Rock Your Writing’s philosophies is, “The only way out is through.” This mantra will get you through a lot of tough times and counteract much of your negative thinking  about your writing when it feels too hard or like it’s taking too long.
  • Use some of your negativity to fuel your writing. Who better to create a realistically frustrated character than someone who is experiencing frustration?
  • Build your skills.  You can improve your writing by taking courses, hiring a coach, joining a critique group, etc. Most of all, though, you can improve your writing by WRITING.   The more you write, not worrying about the end result, the better chance you have of publishing.

You’ll never be positive 100% of the time.   But whether you wallow or change tactics to beat those negative feelings determines whether you’re a positive writer or a negative one. And which of those writer personas you identify with plays a huge part in your ability to be successful.

Rock on!

~ Shannon McKelden

The Magic Art of Finishing Up

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It’s super easy to start writing.  New ideas are shiny and exciting.  There are worlds to explore and characters to get to know.  You may plot, plan, research, outline, and even write a big part of your books. Only to get distracted when the next shiny, exciting idea comes along and seems SOOO much better than the current one.

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you have likely worked on a lot of projects.  How many of them have you finished?  Do you have an archive of half-finished manuscripts on your computer? A plethora of first drafts that have never been revised?

It’s easy to put away the old one, sure that the new one is going to be The One.

Until it’s not. It’s like being a serial dater, barely getting to know one book before moving on to the next.

Almost Finished Gets You Nothing And Nowhere

While it’s true that you’re a writer if you write, it’s also true that, if you have a goal to be a published writer (or, better yet, a self-supporting writer), you need to finish what you start.  You can’t send a half finished manuscript to an editor.  You can’t self-publish part of a story or, worse, a first draft.

So why do we do this?  There are a lot of reasons for starting something new before the old is finished.

  • You’re trying to avoid the previous project that has gotten “too hard.” Surely the next one will be easier!
  • You got bored with the last manuscript or felt like you’d been working on it forever. Surely the next one will go faster!
  • The old book was so flawed, you probably wouldn’t be able to fix it. So you’re not even going to try. Surely the next one will be better!
  • Finishing is scary. If your goal is publication, finishing means you have to submit it to an editor agent, or you have to hit “publish.” That’s a scary step that you never have to take if you never finish. Surely you’ll be ready after the next book!

If you’re on the Fail to Finish Team, one or more of those excuses probably sounds familiar.

The problem with all of that is, of course, that if you never finish, your career is over before it’s even begun.  There are thousands of would-be writers out there with unfinished manuscripts.  (How many times has someone said to you, upon hearing you’re a writer, “Oh, yeah! I started writing a book, too!”?)

But you want to be a real writer, a paid writer.  You don’t want to be a would-be writer saying to other “real” writers that you, too, have “started writing a book” at every cocktail party you attend for the rest of your life.

So How Do You Finish?

Once you’ve completed one book, you know you can do it again.  So how do you break this cycle of unfinished projects and get to the finish line?

  • Stop making excuses about why starting something else is the right thing to do. You don’t need to write book 2 in a series when you haven’t finished book 1.  The next book is not going to be easier that this one. They are all hard.
  • Be thoughtful about what you start. Just because you think of a fantastic idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea for you. Or the right idea right now.  Keep a notebook when you think of something new.  It’ll be there when you finish the one you’re working on now.
  • Commit to the finish. Look at your current half-finished projects and pick one. Work through the hard part and complete it.
  • Don’t worry about perfection. That’s what revisions are for.
  • While you’re working, visualize what it will feel like to finish. A bit of future projecting can go a long way toward motivating yourself to proceed to the finish line.

What you’ll find when you’ve completed that first novel (or the second, or tenth) is a profound feeling of accomplishment.  Your confidence will grow with each finished project.

So pick a project and feel the magic of finishing.

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” — Neil Gaiman

~ Shannon McKelden

Quitting 101 for Writers

quitProbably the biggest complaint I hear from writers is that they “don’t have enough time” to write.

This is usually followed, in the next breath, by listing all the things they’ve got going. All the social events, clubs, projects, volunteer activities, charity work, parental commitments, etc., they have been participating in.  And then how exhausted they are.  And how they can’t fit writing in anywhere.

Even though writing is supposedly a “priority.”

Even though publishing is “all they have ever dreamed of doing” with their lives.

The problem is, no matter how much of a priority something is, if you’re not making time for it, it really isn’t a priority. No matter how many times you call it that.

Actions speak louder than words. If you say writing is a priority, then take action to make it a priority!

So, how do you make time for writing? By quitting.

What?! “Quit,” you say? But winners never quit and quitters never win!

I beg to differ.

When is Quitting Okay?

How many of you struggle with quitting reading a book that you hate or that’s boring?  How many of you are still volunteering for something that no longer interests you or that you’ve come to dread?

Quitting, even something you’ve come to despise, can be really unpleasant for some folks.

But in order to make writing a priority, you can’t just talk about it.  You have to really make it one of the most important things in your life (maybe behind your kids, spouse, health . . . things like that). Remember this, again:  actions speak louder than words.

So, when is quitting okay?

When you’re doing too much –We often do all the things, volunteer for everything, and accept every invitation because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  But you can’t do everything, so it’s okay to be selective. There’s only so much time in a day, and spreading yourself thin can be hard on your health, family, and most definitely any chance you have of starting or maintaining a writing career.

When you’re doing things that aren’t yours to do – Are there things you’re doing that really should be the responsibility of someone else?  Or could they be someone else’s responsibility?  Delegating is a parent’s best friend. No one says you have to clean up after everyone or cook all the meals or drive all the carpools.  If a task can (or should) be done by someone else, hand them their responsibility and stop doing it all yourself.

When you’re only doing it out of habit — Just because you’ve been watching the same soap opera every day for the last ten years, doesn’t mean you have to keep watching it. If you’re only watching it out of habit and not really enjoying the rehashed plotlines, it’s time to quit.

When you’re only doing it because you spent money on it – This is a big one and really hard to get past for some people.  Even if you spent money on something, if it no longer brings you joy, quit. So what if you invested $1000 on piano lessons?  If practicing bores you to tears, you suck at it, and you don’t love it anymore, there’s no reason to keep pursuing it. You may have invested your money, but stop investing your time on something you dislike doing.

When you’re only doing it because someone else expects you to – Did you join a club because your friend begged you to, only to find that you no longer care?  Quit.  If your friend is a true friend, they will understand that you need to make writing a priority in your life.

When what you’re doing doesn’t support your goals — Don’t let saying “yes” become more important than reaching your own goals and dreams.   If the activity in question isn’t supportive of what you’re reaching for in your life, it’s time to quit.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, quit.

How (and What) to Quit

Once you’ve made the decision to quit those extraneous things in your life to make more time to write, how do you go about it?  How do you decide what has to stay and what can go?

Make a pros and cons list –  Not sure whether you still want to belong to the service club you’ve belonged to for ten years?  What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? If there are any cons, consider quitting if there’s no passion left.

Ask for outside opinions from trusted friends or family – Is there anything in your life that they have been telling you to quit?  Ask for their honest thoughts . . . keeping in mind that if you’re trying to quit an activity that they are invested in, they might not be the right person to ask.

Figure out how much extra time you’ll gain by quitting –  How much time do you spend at each of your activities on a weekly basis?  Start by calculating the most time-consuming activity you participate in, and see if it still seems as appealing, if quitting it could give you back that equally large amount of writing time.

Finally, try applying the KonMari method – From the crazy popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, this is really meant to tidy up your life by getting rid of material things that no longer bring you joy.  Applying this same method to the activities you participate in, though, could have an amazing effect on the time you have available to write!

One thing Kondo suggests in the book is clearing out all at once, rather than little by little.  Throwing one thing out a day isn’t going to clean your house up fast. On the other hand, ridding your house, all at the same time, of every item of clothing that isn’t bringing you joy will feel so good, you will be less likely to “relapse” into bad habits or add more things to your wardrobe that leave you joy-less.

Same with that long list of activities you participate in!  Try listing all the things you do (aside from the necessary things, like feeding your kids and getting regular dental checkups) and then go through them one by one, all at the same time, and decide what really brings you joy.

“Start by discarding,” says Kondo. “Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” [Emphasis mine.]

And by “space,” in this instance, we’re talking about your writing “space” – the time you spend, or want to spend – pursuing your goals and dreams.

Once you know what brings you joy, you know what to keep.  Ditch the rest.  Be a quitter and make time for the writing that you love and want more time for!

Final Quitting Thoughts

Remember, nothing is permanent.  If you quit something and then later find you miss it too much, you can always go back. As long as you aren’t doing it to procrastinate from writing.

If the idea of the KonMari method and quitting things all at once is a bit too much, or if you’re just not sure you want to give up a particular thing yet, at least commit to checking in again in six months to see if you still feel the same about it.  Once you’ve got the idea in your head that you may want to quit this activity, you might find all kinds of reasons cropping up that support this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about quitting things that prevent you from writing — writing that you have determined is a priority for you.

Quitting 101 isn’t a primer on how to quit writing.  Writing is hard work and not always fun.  But there’s a huge difference between quitting something because it’s hard sometimes and quitting something because it leaves you no room for what’s really important in your life.

If you’ve committed to a writing career and decided it is your priority, then look for things to quit that don’t support this priority.

Being a quitter isn’t always bad. Quit the right things. For the right reasons.

And then go Rock Your Writing with all that free time you have.

~  Shannon McKelden

How to Rock Your Resolutions

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Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/cydcor/

Every year millions of people make New Year’s resolutions on January first. And by January thirty-first have completely forgotten what those resolutions were.

I’ve been guilty of this.  As the new year rings in, I create this “wish list” of things I want, only to shamefully admit failure within a few weeks.

If I even remember what those resolutions were a few weeks later.

But why do we do this?  It’s estimated that somewhere between 80 and 90% of New Year’s resolutions are broken within a couple of months at the most.  I mean, if we want something badly enough to put it on a list of things we want (Lose weight!  Get more exercise!  Write a book!), why is it so hard to stick with it?

Here’s what I think:  when we come up with these resolutions, we don’t often give thought to whether we are willing to do what is necessary to accomplish them.

For example, I can say I want to lose 25 pounds and it sounds great!  Until I realize what I will have to do to lose those 25 pounds.  Dessert every night?  Nope.  Dinners out every Saturday at my favorite Mexican restaurant?  Nope.  The ability to binge eat through a Netflix marathon every weekend?  Nope.

Suddenly, I’m not nearly as motivated to lose weight as I was when I so naively added it to my list of resolutions.  Simply because I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to accomplish that 25 pounds of weight loss.

Writer’s Resolutions

Is one of your resolutions to write a book this year?  To be successful, you need to decide if you’re willing to do what’s needed to get that book written.

It might mean turning down social engagements on weekends, so that you can write, because you have a full-time job, a family with lots of activities, and don’t have time to write during the week.

It might mean that writing a chapter each week becomes more important than vegging in front of the TV every night.

It might mean choosing to write in your car during your lunch hour rather than going out with your coworkers every day (which might actually also help that 25-pound weight loss goal, coincidentally!).

What if your resolution is even loftier than one book?  What if you resolution is that you’re going to quit your day job and become a full-time writer by the end of this year?

Goals like this one, which are huge and life-changing, require even more thought and planning to ensure that you have even the slightest shot at success.  You’re going to have to know where your income will come from (the writing or somewhere else?), how much time you’ll devote to writing, whether you’ll solely write fiction, or will you write nonfiction or do some other kind of work to supplement your income?  But the #1 question is:  Am I willing to do what is necessary to fulfill this resolution?

Ask Yourself These Questions

So how can you tell if you are committed to doing what is necessary to accomplish the resolutions you make?  Ask  yourself the following questions…and be honest.  If you try to play Mr. or Ms. Committed when you really aren’t, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.

  • Is this resolution something I really want, or something I feel is expected of me? While your best writing friend may write full time, if you’re honest with yourself, you might find that you don’t really want to write full time.  Perhaps you love your day job or enjoy the social aspects of working outside the home.  Don’t make resolutions based on what others tell you you should want or what you think is expected of you.
  • Am I really willing to do what is required to accomplish this resolution? Starting a Twitter account and Facebook author page might be a great resolution if you’re working to build your tribe.  But if you don’t know a tweet from a hole in the ground and hate Facebook and aren’t willing to put in the time to maintain it and interact with others, they will just grow stagnant when you get tired of them.
  • What’s my motivation regarding this resolution? If you’re not “all-in” in terms of being driven to follow through with your writing resolution, you’re going to end up forgetting all about it within a month or so.  If your resolution is to write an erotic novel this year and your motivation is purely the idea that erotica sells, but you can’t stand the genre, you can almost guarantee your failure to keep this resolution.
  • Is the timing right for this resolution?  If you’re a tax accountant, setting a resolution on January 1 to complete a 100,000-word draft of your novel during the first quarter of the year might be really bad timing.  Think about your other commitments before rattling off resolutions that are destined to fail because you simply don’t have enough time in a day.
  • What am I willing to give up and not give up in order to accomplish this goal/resolution?  This one is pretty self explanatory.  Really consider what you might have to give up to be successful. You may run into something you’re not willing to give up that will make your particular resolution impossible.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.

By asking yourself  these questions and really being honest about the answers, you can vet those resolutions up front and have better chance of success by picking resolutions you are truly committed to.

What if You Already Made Resolutions This Year?

I get that it’s nearly mid-January already, and you could very well have named your obligatory resolutions a few weeks ago.  Are you still going strong?  Maybe these are the right resolutions for you.  Have they already started petering out like a forgotten gym membership?   Go through the above questions and see which resolutions might fit and be worth salvaging (or revamping) and which you just aren’t willing to do the work on.

Don’t worry if you discover that you’ve made a  mistake with a few of your resolutions (or all of them!).  You’re armed now with more knowledge about what makes resolutions worthy of your time and efforts! As far as I’m concerned, resolutions aren’t just for January 1. A good resolution works any time of year.

So, readers, are your resolutions rockin’? Or do they need some revisions?  Let us know in your comments!

Rock Your Writing!

~Shannon McKelden

5 questions to ask yourself when writing your novel.

I’m sure a lot of people are plunging into novel-writing… it’s January, after all.  Resolution season.  “This is the year I (finish the novel, start the novel, write another novel)…”

You get the picture.

This often also leads to pulling out whatever notes they might have, opening up a document, and diving in, whether that’s outlining or leaping into the draft itself.

But whether you’re plotting beforehand or doing a discovery draft, you might find yourself getting stuck. 

Here are five questions that can help give you some traction and forward momentum — and, if nothing else, will test the underlying bones of your novel.

Note:  because I primarily work with genre fiction, and because it’s my first passion, these questions apply to traditional three-act structured genre novels.

1.  What does your protagonist want?

This is a test for goal.

If your protagonist doesn’t want something, but is simply bouncing off of events and external characters’ actions like a pinball, then you may have a lot of episodes, but you’re going to have trouble creating a through-line.  Readers want protagonists with a clear, urgent desire, even if they don’t agree with the goal.  If you can’t tell me what your protagonist wants, then you’re going to wind up stuck somewhere around the middle of your novel.

You want the goal to be something tangible.  This is the external goal, the story driver.  So to clarify even further, a secondary question would be:  how will your protagonist know when he/she has it?

2.  What happens if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants?

This is a test for motivation and stakes.

If your protagonist “will be unhappy” or “feel disappointed,” then your goal isn’t strong enough.  You want the protagonist to have a clear consequence if the goal isn’t achieved.  It will be more than just upsetting.  It needs to create a problem of some sort.  Preferably with a clear pain attached.

As a secondary check, you might see if the pain can be escalated.  If the protagonist is going for a job, say, the consequence may be that if he doesn’t get the job, he won’t be able to afford the house his family needs.  It can then be escalated if he loses his current job, or if his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get it, or they lose their current housing.  Check for the possibilities of making the stakes higher and the motivation stronger.

3.  What’s standing in his/her way?

This is a test for conflict.

If your conflict is “he’s not sure if he really wants it” or “she keeps getting distracted” then you don’t have conflict, and your motivation is weak.  A character who is truly driven towards a goal won’t waffle about it, which means you’ve got to throw some fairly solid, and escalating, conflict in the way or you’re going to have a very short and unsatisfying novel.

Using the above example, escalating conflict is more than just “he has to go on a series of interviews” with more interviews being added.  It can be his car being repossessed, which makes getting to the job site more difficult.  It can be the introduction of an antagonist, a rival for the job.  It can be a “final jeopardy” interview which requires him to sell a million dollars worth of widgets in a one-week period.  It can mean moving to Antarctica (and away from his family/new house) for a year.  Again, think in terms of “how can I make this worse?”

4.  How is your protagonist different at the end of the book?

This is a test for story arc.  To be a true protagonist, your character needs to develop as a result of facing the challenges of the novel.  If you’re wondering about “how should I end this story?” this question is usually the key to the resolution.

This means more than “your protagonist has faced the challenge and won.”  He or she needs to have grown, in a visible way.

5.  Why does your reader care?

Note that I didn’t say “the reader.”  This is your Right Reader.  I get clients who ask “but don’t readers want more action?  More suspense?  A likeable protagonist?”  The result is usually a hodge-podge of humor, thrilling chases or superfluous murder, with a pandering “he may be a bastard, but he rescues puppies” scene shoehorned in.

Don’t do that.

Look at your character.  Will your audience understand his/her goal, and the motivation behind it?  Will they be able to relate, even if it isn’t a goal they’d particularly want?  Is your character compelling enough to keep the reader along for the ride?  Characters don’t have to be “likable.”  They can’t be boring, though.  Avoid generic.

Pull out these questions whenever you get off track.

Nine times out of ten, when I’m working with an author who is stuck, it’s because they’ve strayed from one or more of the above five questions.  Just asking themselves these questions usually gets them unstuck in a hurry.

Last ten days for editing special.

I’m running my editing special for the month of January.  It’s the only one I run all year.  If you need someone to look through your novel and help you with the structure, flow, and characterization, then now’s the perfect time.  If your novel’s not quite ready, you can reserve the rate for use on any single 500 page or less project through 2014.  Click here for more details.

Daylight’s burning, peeps.  Let’s write some stories. 🙂